Today is the 165th anniversary of Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker's priestly ordination in London on the Redemptorist feast of the Most Holy Redeemer. He had become a Catholic five years before as a result of a prolonged period of spiritual seeking. For Hecker, however, the spiritual search was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was to find. Once the object was found, the search ceased. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and never either regretted what he had found or desired to look farther, but rather desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Thus, all of his activity after his conversion was characterized above all by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which his personal spiritual search had so earnestly led him, and which would in time transform him into an active, enthusiastic missionary.
Hecker’s immediate practical task as a new Catholic was to resolve his vocation within the Church. Already in 1843, more than a year before his reception into the Catholic Church, he had committed himself to a celibate vocation [Diary, May 17, 1843]. Then, in 1845, at the Redemptorist parish of The Most Holy Redeemer on New York’s East 3rd Street, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. (In 1732, St. Alphonsus Liguori [1696-1787] had founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer as a society of missionary priests to reach out to the poor urban and rural poor in and around Naples, Italy. One hundred years later in 1832, the first six Redemptorists had arrived to begin work in the United States. The future Saint John Neumann [1811-1860], a Bohemian-born priest of the Diocese of New York had joined the Order in 1840 and would serve as Provincial Superior of the American Redemptorists from 1847 until his appointment as Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852.)
In July 1845, Hecker decided to join his new friends in becoming a Redemptorist. As the story goes, he took an overnight train to Baltimore, the Provincial headquarters of the Redemptorists in the U.S. He showed up at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded him that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot – with none of today's fancy psychological screening processes! He took the train back to New York, said goodbye to his family, and set sail for his new life in Europe.
As a Redemptorist novice, Hecker felt confirmed in his religious vocation. In 1846, he wrote to his family: “Now I can say with some degree of certainty that I have found all that I have ever sought. All my seeking is now ended.”
The path to the priesthood was far from smooth for him, however. According to his own 1857 account: “My noviciate was one of sore trials, for the master of novices seemed not to understand me, and the manifestation of my interior to him was a source of the greatest pain. After about nine or ten months he appeared to recognize the hand of God in my direction in a special manner, conceived a great esteem, and placed an unusual confidence in me, and allowed me, without asking it, though greatly desired, daily communion.… Some fears, however, at not being able to pursue my studies in that state arose in my mind, but he bade me banish them, and my vows were made at the end of the year.”
His academic difficulties - what he himself described late in life as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors - continued to pose a problem. Hecker, however, remained convinced that he had a vocation. As he wrote in 1857, "my vocation was to labor for the conversion of my non-Catholic fellow countrymen. This work at first was, it seemed to me, to be accomplished by means of acquired science, but now it had been made plain that God would have it done principally by the aid of His grace; and if left to study at such moments when my mind was free, it would not take a long time for me to acquire sufficient knowledge to be ordained a priest."
To their eternal credit, his Redemptorist superiors likewise recognized the authenticity of his vocation. So, after his novitiate in Belgium and some time at the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he went to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in Clapham; and, on October 23, 1849, he was duly ordained a priest.
Reflecting back later on his difficult experience as a student, he likened himself to the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney (1786-1859), famous for how hard he had found his studies for the priesthood. Both Saint John Vianney and Isaac Hecker went on to become exemplary priests - in spite of not quite measuring up to standard seminary standards. His commitment to the Church as the institutional expression of the Holy Spirit's presence and providential action sustained him in his priestly ministry - even through the suffering inflicted upon him by his religious superiors.
First as a Redemptorist and then as a Paulist, Hecker devoted himself energetically to living out the priestly vocation to which he had been called, until illness drastically limited his activities in his final years. His closest companion in those years, Paulist Father Walter Elliott, wrote that Hecker "knew that this was really a higher form of prayer than any he had yet enjoyed, that it steadily purified his understanding by compelling ceaselessly repeated acts of faith in God’s love, purified his will by constant resignation of every joy except God alone – God received by any mode in which it might please the Divine Majesty to reveal Himself.”